General House Rules

Last time, I posted my house rules for D&D-style games; this is the list of rules I’m intending to implement for any game I run (where appropriate). I’m torn because I feel like this is a lot of tweaks, but they’re all fairly simple, and I don’t think people will have too much trouble with them. We’ll find out, though, because I’m going to be leaning on this as I move forward.

Ammo Dice
This is apparently from The Black Hack: don’t track ammunition, because that’s boring. Instead, when it would be thematically interesting to potentially run out, roll a die representing your typical supply (d6 for a quiver, maybe a d20 for a character with a big magical quiver stuffed full). If that die comes up 1 or 2, shrink the die for the next time. Once you roll a 1 or 2 on a d4, you’re out of ammunition. This can work for games like Shadowrun that actually want you to track bullets (yawn), and it can also complicate games like Edge of the Empire, where blasters are unlimited until you get a certain result (too abrupt; lacks drama).

Devil’s Bargain
In essence, you can take a critical success at any time–but I now have a critical failure to hold over you which can be enacted at any time. This can’t be banked and is opt-in–in other words, if you never use this rule in the first place, I can never use it against you.

I want to be able to give people awards for good ideas without unbalancing the game in terms of XP. I like Hero Points, but keeping track of anything more than “do I have a Hero Point” is a pain. In Savage Worlds I can just hand out another Bennie, of course, but for other systems I’m going to start using 5e’s Inspiration rule. I like that you can’t stack it, so it’s a very use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing. The idea of “advantage” translates to most game systems reasonably well, so it’s kind of a no-brainer.

Mooks Can’t Kill PCs
Basically, if a character doesn’t have a name, it can’t kill a PC. It seems like this would limit me as the GM but actually it means I can really go to town; even a party wipe just results in imprisonment or such. It also makes named characters more dangerous without actually giving them any bonuses over the mooks.

I used to play a lot of World of Darkness, and the GM would always do the questions/answer method of handing out experience. Each of us would get a little slip of paper with our XP written out, and then we would nominate the person we thought most deserved a bonus point. Whoever got the most votes got a bonus XP. We weren’t allowed to nominate ourselves or the previous week’s winner, of course, so that kept it rotating pretty evenly with no hard feelings. I always liked that system, because it gave a little extra incentive to roleplay.

Take the Initiative
A player who knows what they want to do as soon as their character’s turn comes around gets a +1 bonus to whatever that action is. This incentivizes readiness without penalizing people who legitimately need a few minutes.

House Rules for D&D-type Games

There’ve been a number of threads on r/rpg about favorite house rules (or favorite mechanics in general), and I’ve been flagging several for my own reference but I keep forgetting to actually collect them into a document. So I’ve decided to do so. Here is the list of house rules I would use if I were running a D&D-style game again, be it 13th Age or 5e. I’m mostly putting this here for my own reference but I’m open to any thoughts or suggestions people might have!

Caffeinated Hit Dice
This is 5e specific but could be adapted for other variants: players can spend hit dice to remove levels of exhaustion during a short rest. This lets me have more fun with exhaustion levels, including using it as a penalty for failed (or even prolonged) social encounters.

Core Dice Mechanic
A d20 is just way too swingy for my taste. I need to playtest a bit but I’ll probably use either 2d10 or 3d6. I know this is the sort of drastic change that really alienates some people, but it would greatly reduce the amount of time that is wasted on missed hits.

Escalation Die
I’m stealing this wholesale from 13th Age, obviously, so if that turns out to be the game I’m running, this won’t be relevant. But I love the idea of the escalation die for the same reason I want a less swingy roll to begin with–I don’t want to spend a billion years watching people miss each other.

Experience Equality
Listen, there’s merit to the notion of not everyone being the exact same level, especially if you’re using older systems like racial experience adjustments. That said, unless you’re playing with a bunch of trustworthy experts, leveling is somewhat complex and requires DM attention, so it’s best done to the whole group at once. Therefore I prefer milestone experience for level-based systems with everyone equal.

I find initiative to be entirely too swingy in a standard d20 game, but I do want some variety. I’ve seen one source suggest you just go in order of bonus with no dice rolls, which works for a tactical game like Pathfinder where holds and readies are common anyway, but I think for a 5e game, I’d just use a smaller die for initiative–a d10 is my first thought, but I’d likely tweak that in practice. That way there’s still some variety, but we’re less likely to see a -1 go before a +8.

Carry weight is right out. Depending on my player base, I’d either go with the Shadow of the Demon Lord system of “[Str] items readily accessible and the rest in packs,” or the Anti-Hammerspace Item Tracker, if I thought my players would enjoy that.

Rolling Hit Points
Rolling hit points at each level can be extremely unfun when you get a 1. OTOH, taking a set number is boring, as I learned from my PFS days. So I’m imagining one of two options. If I want steady increases, roll half the die plus half the die (d8 becomes d4+4 etc). If I’m willing to let people sit at the same amount from time to time, I’ll steal the Stars Without Number system of rerolling the entire HP total at each level, and taking that as the new score if it’s higher than the old. I’ve never actually seen that in action, though, so I’d need to see how it worked out.

Wounds & Vitality
I think I’m almost certainly going to use Wounds and Vitality for any hit point system I run in the future. Hit Points are an abstraction that don’t add much fun to the narrative, in my opinion, but I don’t necessarily love the “three hits and you’re out” from other systems, either. W&V is a good way to combine the two. Additionally, it opens the door for wound modifiers. I haven’t decided how I’m going to go about handling those yet, but I definitely want to involve them somehow.

Gauntlet Con: Dream Askew

This weekend during Gauntlet Con, which was still fantastic and should still be the model for online conventions, I got to play Dream Askew with its author Avery Alder. Avery is the author of some other games you might have heard of, such as Perfect, Unrevised, The Quiet Year, and what’s that other one oh right Monsterhearts. I was absolutely delighted to be able to play a game with her.

Dream Askew is a game I’ve poked at several times, but it never quite gelled for me; as I expected, playing it made a lot more sense than just trying to read it with no context. Additionally, the second edition is in playtest and I found the new materials quite useful; I’m looking forward to the final version. I’ll also note that this is probably the most realistic apocalypse scenario I’ve seen; it’s one where things get bad and collapse, but not all at once. When I say realistic, I mean spoiler alert: that process has already begun. If you were not aware of that before right now … well. Sorry. :/

Anyway, if you’re inclined to watch:

As an added bonus, you can see me showing off my Three Grumpy Cat Moon t-shirt.

Gauntlet Con: Dogs in the Vineyard

This weekend during Gauntlet Con, which was still fantastic and should still be the model for online conventions, I got to play Dogs in the Vineyard. I’ve had my eye on this for some time now for several reasons: everyone discusses its elegant design in hushed tones; it’s one of Vincent Baker’s earlier games; the concept is just so damn interesting; and someone on reddit once mentioned using it for the Dark Tower setting and that’s such a good idea I can’t not steal it.

The session was pretty good, even if it did get down to a certain amount of PC vs PC tension at the end, but I found the conclusion … satisfying. ? I should also note that if you’re interested in seeing the system, the GM (who was awesome) was screensharing the Roll20 board during conflicts, so you can watch us move our dice around in full detail.

Gauntlet Con: Alas for the Awful Sea

This weekend during Gauntlet Con, which was fantastic and should be the model for online conventions, I got to play Alas for the Awful Sea with one of its authors, Hayley Gordon. This was exciting, because I backed it on Kickstarter and had been holding off reading the book, and more to the point the included scenario, until I’d had a chance to play it. The system was fairly standard PBtA mechanics and overall it was more fun than I actually expected–I’m really enjoying this run of social games I’ve been playing lately (which I really need to write about, albeit later).

Interestingly, the session was broadcast live on YouTube. So in lieu of a summary, I’ll just provide a link! If you’re bored and want to watch me play a zealous Catholic ship captain, here is the video:

As a bonus, you can see my dog for several moments towards the end.

Dark Hold Goblins, Session 6

After returning from the depths and washing off the cobwebs, our heroes were asked by Schmeck to investigate a problem he was having: a nearby farming community had gone silent. Upon traveling to the village, our heroes found that a jerk of a Goblin named Yorgi had set himself up as president-for-life, and kept order through a scroll of flaming bolt that he’d managed to get his hands on–one good for many iterations of the spell.

Ideas that were pitched for how to handle the Yorgi situation:

  • A giant hollow wooden bear could be offered as a present to Yorgi; the party would hide within then jump out and attack.
  • Some sort of weird Goblin Realdoll could be carved from a tree, with which Yorgi would fall madly in lust to the exclusion of all else.
  • Pepper carries a bottle of the Waters of Lethe, collected in Elves’ Demise, which could be offered to Yorgi as a fine wine, and once his memory was erased, he would be easily handled.
  • Show up in the village, give tribute to Yorgi, then kill him once he was asleep.
  • Frontal assault.
  • Yorgi could be bribed with some sort of bespoke buttplug. It was unclear how this would resolve the situation in any way.
  • Yorgi could be presented with a Certificate of Achievement from Schmeck–obviously forged–and asked to come see Schmeck, who would then jump him with all the clan’s warriors.

In the end, our heroes attempted to engage the “give tribute and kill him later” plan, but after watching Yorgi murder two people in cold blood, they just went with the frontal assault. It didn’t take long. The party cheerfully collected his scroll, only to find that it only had one use left, meaning Yorgi’s days were numbered anyway. Nevertheless, they were hailed as the heroes of this tiny hamlet, and their reputation spread throughout the valley.

That night, gathered around the fire, our heroes reflected upon their past.

Lo told a tale of love: she’d run away from her parents’ controlling grip, and embraced a life of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. At a music festival deep in the valley, while tripping balls, she meet Blork the Orc, who she instantly fell for on the grounds that her parents would hate him. One magical night later, she woke to a note explaining that his wealthy family had called him away to war. She treasured the note, and several others she’d found since then.

Our reader is reminded that Lo is completely delusional. The actual note is pictured above; the followup letters have been written by the other party members, mostly out of pity.

Pepper told a tale of desire: What drove her to healing was a book on Elven anatomy; a book about the grace of form and the restoration of beauty. Unfortunately, the healing practiced by Goblins is the tradition left to them by Dwarves, which focuses exclusively on restoring a slave to functionality. Pepper’s goal in life is to discover better healing techniques and share them–for if her own healer had known them, perhaps Pepper’s leg would not be permanently damaged.

Goblet shared a story of tragedy, explaining that as the runt of a dedicated broodmother he’d always been a disappointment to his parents, who prided themselves on raising productive children. In an effort to win their love, he’d taken to calligraphy, trying to show them the value of art. Sweet though the sentiment might be, he remains unaccepted by those he values most.

Finally, Tawncho told a story of victory: Once upon a time, he’d had a friendly rivalry with another goblin named Brawndo. Brawndo was older, and had challenged Tawncho to a contest of strength, which he handily won. However, Tawncho found out later that the contest had been rigged–Brawndo knew he was weaker, and in attempting to cover it up, had proven it to everyone. Now, Tawncho is a hero of the goblin people, and Brawndo is “probably out cleaning or something.”

Dark Hold Goblins, Session 5

Our heroes haven’t checked in for quite some time, so the specifics of their recollection might be somewhat hazy–they are goblins, after all–but here is the story as they recounted it:

The DoorA new section of Dark Hold had recently been exposed by a cave-in. A large double-door had been discovered, and from the state of the door–barred from the exterior by several pillars of stone that appear to have been some sort of mechanism, covered with glowing runes reading “Danger: Do Not Open” in Dwarven–it looked like there was going to be some good stuff inside.

tawncho attacks a distant skeleton
Tawncho attacks a distant skeleton

Once our heroes opened the door, they found the interior covered in deep scratches–in the stone–and a massive quantity of blood. Similarly, the floor of what appeared to be a guard post was trashed, with bloodstains on nearly every surface, and a variety of long-dead Dwarves scattered about.

dwarven skeleton guardVenturing further within, the party came to a barracks where skeletal Dwarves patrolled in a parody of their living duties. In the ensuing battle, many bones were broken, none of them goblin, and a rather vulgar poem was found engraved on the wall of the privy. The beds that remained were all of solid Dwarven steel, so the party made a note to send recovery teams and moved on. Somewhere in this process, Goblet apparently began some sort of sexual awakening that involves doors–the specifics were unclear, and no one seemed keen on recapping it later.

an attempt at mappingWandering relatively aimlessly through a lengthy hallway, which they tried (and failed) to map, our heroes stumbled onto a massive, and utterly destroyed, wizard’s laboratory. A few magical trinkets were unearthed here, including a Crystal of Coward’s Luck, which allows the bearer to run like hell, but only away, and a small orb that floats about and watches for danger.

the orb
“Bro the Orb”

The orb lacks darksight, and so will primarily be of use on the surface, since our heroes prefer to simply not bother with light while underground. (This will be important later.)

While in the laboratory, the sound of their passage caused a massive creature to awaken and come lumbering out. Some sort of Frankensteinian abomination, stitched together from several goblin corpses. Picture giant meaty hands with goblin ribs for claws, and scale the rest of the beast from there–big and ugly. And also in never-ending agony and existential horror. Of course, being just one beast, it fell almost immediately to an absurdly lucky swing of Kyle, so there’s not a lot of drama there.

pretty spider 1
A pretty spider, which doesn’t have much to do with anything.

Turning to the rest of the complex, the party found themselves burning their way through corridors filled with webs, and was therefore unsurprised when they were attacked by a massive ugly spider-creature, which turned out to be another horrible golem built around the frame of a Foulbear.

pretty spider 2
Another pretty spider, which still doesn’t have much to do with anything.

Although grossed out, the party managed to take it down, and once they’d cleared the webbing, they found themselves in an opulent bedroom, which they promptly looted of anything that hadn’t rotted away with age.

grave guardianOn their way out, the party was once more assaulted, this time from a creature that burst through the nearby wall. Horrifyingly, they were unable to see it even as it tore into them; it wasn’t until Lo fired a signature glitter-blast that they realized it could be seen in the light. Someone promptly lit a torch and dispatched the now-revealed Grave Guardian by carving it into several pieces. Both its cloak, which grants invisibility by darksight, and its gloves, allowing the wearer to burrow through solid stone, were promptly purloined by Goblet.

Exiting the complex through the only remaining area, the party discovered a macabre museum, full of taxidermied creatures … and Goblins, and Dwarves, and so forth. Our heroes decided to go forth and let the salvage crews handle the rest of this place while they tried to forget what they’d seen.

Dark Hold Goblins, Session 4

As our heroes set out from Trade Town, they discovered that Frasier Fir would not be joining them. As you may recall, dear reader, Mr. Fir had an ex-lover in Trade Town who had issued him an ultimatum. Having gone against it, Frasier had not bothered to return to Trade Town since. Upon revisiting his past, he learned that the ultimatum was just a bluff–and that he had sired a child. Given the value that goblins–even bloodthirsty lunatics like Frasier Fir–place upon family, he opted to stay in Trade Town and help raise his son.

Passing through Gristler territory, the remainder of the party sought a replacement from Chief Shmeck, who unfortunately wasn’t able to provide any promising candidates. Fortunately, a young softboy of the clan, Goblet, decided he was perfect for the job and snuck off after them as they departed. He made their acquaintance at the edge of the lake, and they opted to bring him along on the grounds that the worst that could happen would be he’d get killed.

the dollOur heroes then crossed the lake to Black Isle, the haunted island in the lake. Not far from their landing site, they picked up a game trail, which lead them to a small clearing where a tiny doll, in the Dwarven style, sat upon a stump, staring blankly at them. Unable to detect any magic about it, Pepper chose to bring it with, swaddled to her back. Unfortunately this made Lo very uncomfortable; to her mind the doll wriggled and whispered and stared. Finally she strove to remove it from her companion, and lo, the doll was rent in twain, which freaked Lo out no less, and annoyed Pepper somewhat.

Further travels revealed a clearing that had once been used as a camp; a ring of stones circled a firepit that hadn’t been used in decades, and a surprisingly sturdy lean-to, sized for a dwarf or two, still stood. A tiny rusted knife was stuck out of the root of a tree, as though it had been placed there for storage and forgotten. Goblet took the knife.

High, piping voices echoed out of the forest. “Go back! You will find only your doom.”

Heading deeper into the forest, the party uncovered a clearing that had once been used as a camp; a ring of stones circled a firepit that hadn’t been used in decades, and a surprisingly sturdy lean-to, sized for a dwarf or two, still stood. There was a tiny hole in the root of a tree, as though a rusty knife had just been removed. Irate, they left the doll in the middle of the clearing to see what happened.

The voices chimed, “You should not be here!”

Venturing further, the party happened upon a clearing that had once been used as a camp; a ring of stones circled a firepit that hadn’t been used in decades, and a surprisingly sturdy lean-to, sized for a dwarf or two, still stood. There was a tiny hole in the root of a tree, as though a rusty knife had just been removed. A doll, in the Dwarven style, sat in the middle of the cleaning, having been split in half. Investigation revealed that while the original doll had been torn, this one had been sliced. Goblet made a carving in a nearby tree of himself and his new friends; Tawncho took the less-subtle approach of destroying the lean-to.

“Go back!” cried the voices.

Finally, the party discovered a clearing that had once been used as a camp; a ring of stones circled a firepit that hadn’t been used in decades, and the remnants of a lean-to were scattered about, along with the creature that had just flattened it–a fowlbear (1). Our heroes put the poor creature out of its misery, and charged forward with renewed vigor.

After several dead ends and a pit trap filled with skeletons–“you will share their fate,” promised the voices–our heroes finally found themselves in a massive clearing, still covered by the canopy overhead, thanks to one massive tree in the center. Easily 60′ tall, this tree reached out in every direction, dominating this section of the forest. At the foot of the tree, a pair of shoes was neatly arranged. Stepping forward to investigate, the party found itself attacked by the tree (2), which tried to impale them and drain their vitality. After a few very lucky hits, the tree was felled, and it took out a large swath of the surrounding forest with it.

At this point, one voice rang out from the surrounding trees–high and piping, but without the deliberate modulation of the earlier chorus. “On second thought, maybe we’d like to chat.”

the kercpa

In the center of the island, the Ghost Blade waited, unable to rest until he avenged the theft of his wife’s face. He tried to kill Lo to no avail while the temple’s guardian, a Glass Golem (4), sought to handle the rest of the party. Goblet’s twin warhammers proved unreasonably effective against portrait of Matthiasthe golem, and the ghost himself was no match for Kyle (Tawncho’s sword, remember). Handily dispatching the villains, our heroes entered the temple and found a small silver keyhole set in a single block, but were quite grumpy to learn that the lock itself could only be accessed on a celestial conjunction that they could not yet determine. The Kercpa promised to keep an eye on it and send word to the party should anything change, in return for the party’s silence about the residents of the island, who simply wished to be left alone.

  1. Fowlbear, essentially a grotesquely mutated Owlbear with permanent leprosy. DHG p62.
  2. Methusaleh Tree, a massive vampiric tree (non-sentient but nasty). Savage Worlds Fantasy p136.
  3. Kercpa, squirrel-folk. SO CUTE. Dragon Magazine #214, p26, “The Dragon’s Bestiary.”
  4. Glass Golem, does what it says on the tin, SWF p123. Very fragile. :/

The Quiet Year: A Chatty Six Months

At a recent MaxFun Meetup, I finally had a chance to play The Quiet Year, which has been on my to-do list for a while. Under the circumstances–I like The Rook, but the acoustics need work–we weren’t particularly quiet, but the conversation we did have was profoundly snarky, so it balanced out. (Contempt tokens were flying about, I assure you.) Time ran a little short and we only got through the very beginning of Fall on an already-lightened deck, but we had a blast and I wanted to share our map.

Dark Hold Goblins, Session 3

Our heroes, having some loot burning a hole in their pockets, made their way to Trade Town, where they successfully parted with some ancient Elven artifacts in exchange for more gold than they’d ever seen in their collective lives–about 40, to be precise. (1) They made the acquaintance of a smith who was fairly impressed with Tawncho’s sword Kyle, and he managed to smooth out a few imperfections in the blade. He could not identify the style of the blade, though, and was perplexed to learn that it had been found in a pile of junk underground in Dark Hold, but suggested that our heroes return to him in the future, should they find themselves back in town.

On their way to acquire some trinkets with their newfound wealth, the party wandered past the town library, where they discovered a bit of a stir. Wandering in–Pepper, at least, is quite fond of books, and everyone else was just fairly bored–they found the head librarian in something of a tizzy, a few of her subordinates trying to reign her in, and a halfling possessed of the vapors. Shortly they determined that the halfling, Lloyd, had heard a disturbance in a researcher’s office, and had witnessed one of the assistant researchers trying to get away, only to be pulled back in by some kind of tentacle. The head librarian, Prudence, offered the party a modest sum to investigate, suspecting that they would be gone only for a few moments to determine that everything was fine.

Distracted from their errands, the party headed downstairs into the researcher’s office, finding it covered in plaster dust and having recently suffered a massive hole in the wall. Crawling through, they found a labyrinthine library–every wall a bookshelf, arranged haphazardly. (Shoddily built, too, at least by Dwarven standards; the shelves looked like they wouldn’t last more than a few more centuries.)

Winding their way through the labyrinth of lore by keeping left, the party happened upon a pair of Pack Rats (2). One, Scohl, did most of the talking, while his rotund friend Treg just kind of grunted. They managed to blurt out that they worked for Drengez, who worked for Vheffash, and the party swiftly convinced them that they had an appointment with Vheffash. Crestfallen, the Pack Rats let them pass, but shortly thereafter took advantage of their continued leftward leanings to sneak past.

A Rat Reading a BookShortly thereafter, they met Drengez, who turned out to be a Dire Ratling (3) who had been attempting to increase the lot of Pack Rats in Trade Town. It seems that Trade Town had an interesting tradition of mandating humane treatment of rats, but had decided that Pack Rats, being sentient, were excepted from this. Second class citizens in a town where no one objects to the constant presence of Goblins, the Pack Rats had turned to an ancient and forgotten God of ratkind that Drengez had learned about during his time in the deep tunnels of the Dark Hold. While they did succeed in summoning one of that God’s servants, they found to their dismay that Vheffash, the hive mind of the Cranium Rats that came through the portal, was not their savior, but rather their enslaver. It sought to collect still more power from the depository of books that the city’s Pack Rats had found, eventually breaking through the false walls of the active library to kidnap researchers who could hasten the translation–for while Vheffash could learn new languages with little difficulty, the arcane formulae of the dwarves were difficult to convert into its native psionic understanding of power.

Cranium RatDrengez, upon learning that the party was keen on rescuing the humans and not at all adverse to destroying Vheffash in the process, challenged them to prove their worth, by having their chosen champion face him in single combat. Tawncho promptly knocked him out cold with one swing of Kyle’s flat, and upon wakening, he was overjoyed to make the acquaintance of such capable adventurers, and lead them on.

Frasier Fir SurfsVheffash, the massive swarm of rats with glowing blue brains exposed, engaged in some standard villainous monologuing before attacking the party, and managed to take over Drengez to use as a puppet, but was ultimately destroyed by Lo’s fire magic and Frasier Fir’s rather disgusting decision to use his shield as a sled on the broken backs of rodents. As Vheffash’s intellect faded, its few remaining component rats scattered to the tunnels, to take shelter, and presumably breed, and threaten the world once more.

Once the bookshelf that Lo had set on fire was extinguished, the researchers were happy to be saved, Prudence was happy to have a new library to catalogue, and the party was happy to be paid. Everyone was happy, save perhaps Drengez and the Pack Rats, whose lot in life had improved, but only barely.

What will the future reveal of Trade Town, the strange lot of Pack Rats, and the scourge of Cranium Rats? Only time will tell.

  1. The framework of this plot came from “The Lurkers in the Library” by Patricia Neal Elrod, published in Dungeon #9. The monsters and motivations were added to fit the campaign.
  2. Pack Rats, Dark Hold Goblins, page 64: A barely sentient, vaguely humanoid rat creature; a result of the vile magics of the Overlords’ experiments.
  3. Dire Ratlings, Dark Hold Goblins, page 64: A slightly smarter and significantly rarer version of Pack Rats, Dire Ratlings walk on two legs, wear clothes, and have been known to lead small groups of Pack Rats, often to their benefit.